I have some old issues of Sport magazine; they did a salary survey every year back in the 80s.
Here are some numbers:
Top 10 NHL Salaries 1987
1. Wayne Gretzky EDM - $950,000 Canadian ($717,250 USD)
2. Marcel Dionne NYR - $700,000
3. Mike Bossy NYI - $650,000
4. Bryan Trottier NYI - $625,000
5. Dave Taylor LA - $600,000
6. Mario Lemieux PIT - $550,000
6. Denis Potvin NYI - $550,000
8. Mike Liut HAR - $450,000
9. Rod Langway WAS - $400,000
10. Barry Pederson VAN - $350,000
Top 20 NHL Salaries 1990
1. Wayne Gretzky LA - $2,720,000
2. Mario Lemieux PIT - $2,150,000
3. Chris Chelios MTL - $1,000,000
4. Bryan Trottier NYI - $975,000
5. Dave Taylor LA - $950,000
6. Ray Bourque BOS - $925,000
7. Mark Messier EDM - $875,000
8. Bernie Nicholls NYR - $725,000
9. Steve Yzerman DET - $700,000
10. Michel Goulet CHI - $600,000
11. Jimmy Carson DET - $585,000
12. Larry Robinson LA - $550,000
13. Denis Savard CHI - $525,000
14. Kevin Dineen HAR - $510,000
15. Doug Wilson CHI - $500,000
15. Ron Hextall PHI - $500,000
15. Tim Kerr PHI - $500,000
18. Paul Coffey PIT - $485,000
19. Peter Stastny QUE - $480,000
20. Dale Hawerchuk WPG - $462,000
Some other interesting numbers:
Top paid athlete 1987: Michael Spinks - Boxing - $4,000,000
Top paid baseball player 1987 - Jim Rice - Boston Red Sox - $2,412,500
Top basketball player 1987 - Moses Malone - Washington Bullets - $2,145,000
Top football player 1987 - Jim Kelly - Buffalo Bills - $1,400,000
Wayne Gretzky did not even crack the top 100 highest paid athletes in North American sports in 1987.
Top Paid athlete 1990 - Sugar Ray Leonard - Boxing - $27,450,000
Top baseball player 1990 - Robin Yount - Milwaukee Brewers - $3,200,000
Top basketball player 1990 - Patrick Ewing - NY Knicks - $3,575,000
Top football player 1990 - John Elway - Denver Broncos - $1,853,571
Wayne Gretzky was the 7th highest paid North American athlete in 1990.
Also interesting in those mags were the cigarette ads. Guys and girls having a great time, showing us how awesome smoking was for us - kinda like beer ads these days.
It is amazing how phenomenally underpaid Paul Coffey was. A top 25 player of all time and in 1990 - after 2 Norris Trophies, being a perennial all star and 3 Stanley Cups, he was paid less than Kevin Dineen! Gretzky and Lemieux had clearly separated themselves from the rest of the NHL in talent and in salary by 1990.
If you look at the 1987 list, it is remarkable how underpaid all of the Oilers were. Gretzky was clearly the most dominant player in the world and he made pretty much the same money as an aging Marcel Dionne. Perennial all stars like Messier, Coffey, Kurri, Fuhr and Anderson don't appear in the top 10! Pocklington's financial issues were evident even in the midst of Stanley Cup glory.
Also interesting - in 1987, the Kansas City Royals had three players in the top 10 of baseball salaries. Today, that is impossible. But, back in an era where the owners probably kept 75% of league revenues, any team could sign any player because salaries were a much smaller chunk of the pie. In pro sports today, salaries are now too large and the revenue generated in smaller markets - and even bigger markets - isn't enough to support the salary strucutre as it is. Thus, a salary cap is critical to ensure competitive balance. These days in baseball, other than maybe the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Dodgers and Phillies, no team could support 3 of the top 10 salaries in the game.
Great topic, but it should be changed from "salaries prior to 1990" to "contracts prior to 1990" so we can also discuss other aspects. Like contract length for example.
Informations from the 1961 Montreal Gazette:
Bolded are the dates of reports in the Gazette. Links to the reports are further below.
1) $7,500 is "basic NHL salary". That's what rookie Reggie Fleming earns at the Chicago Black Hawks. For his second year however he wants more. [Oct.7]
2) Bernie Geoffrion "must have made over $25,000" (advertising royalities not included) in the 1960-1961 season [Sept.12]:
-Salary: approximately $15,000 [Sept.12] or close to $20,000 [Sept.18]
-Bonus: $3,000 ($100 for every goal after the first 20; Geoffrion scored 50) [Sept.12]
-League Prize for winning the scoring championship: $1,000 [Sept.12]
-League Prize for winning the Hart Trophy: $1,000 [Sept.12]
-League Prize for making the first all-star team: $1,000 [Sept.12]
-Montreal Canadiens match the $1,000 x 3 Prize money: $3,000 [Sept.12]
-League Prize for members of the league champions and the losing team in the SC semi-finals: $1,750 [Sept.12](Prize money awarded to players or awarded to team and then divided and handed out to players?)
3) The size of salary for 1961-1962 is not reported, but Geoffrion receives a "big raise" while the bonus clauses stay the same. [Sept.12](The $100 bonus for every goal after the first 20 only earn Geoffrion $300 this time because he doesn't score more than 23.)
4) Long contracts are very rare. Only two players "in NHL history" have received five-year deals: Jean Beliveau in 1958 and Bobby Hull in 1960. [Sept.12] Bernie Geoffrion, 31, can't even get a three-year contract after a spectactular 1960-1961 season and has to settle for a one-year offer. [Sept.18]
I seem to remember reading that several Oilers stars willingly accepted relatively low salaries because they wanted to keep the team together for as long as possible and when Gretzky was traded, there was consternation that their sacrifice had come to nothing.
Arguably Glenn Anderson lost out most on that score, because he'd signed an eight-year deal back in 1984.
This source has Messier down as agreeing a $600,000 a year deal with the Oilers in 87, but playing out the season without signing the contract.
Also interesting - in 1987, the Kansas City Royals had three players in the top 10 of baseball salaries. Today, that is impossible. But, back in an era where the owners probably kept 75% of league revenues, any team could sign any player because salaries were a much smaller chunk of the pie.
Assuming the players union gets the remaining 25%, that seems too low for the pension? How'd they maintain it?